Too Good to be True

Learning Spanish in Guatemala
By Alexandra Kennaugh

No quiero nada que ver con ella is a phrase I learned at Eco-Escuela, a Spanish immersion school located in the Petin region of Guatemala. Literally translated, it means, "I don't want anything to do with her." But when pronounced with the softest intonation it transforms into a charming idiom that means, "too good to be true."

The Eco-Escuela opened my eyes to the subtleties of the Spanish language—and to an extraordinary way of experiencing Guatemala's natural and cultural splendors.

The school is located in San Andris, a rural community that sits on the southern edge of the Maya Biosphere Reserve—four million acres of protected tropical forest. This forest reserve is the largest in Central America, and is considered to be a global "biodiversity hotspot."

Under threat of destruction by growing local human populations, conservationists are searching for creative solutions to protect this and other one-of-a-kind ecosystems, and provide for the communities that depend on them.

One innovative approach to alleviating pressure on the reserve is Eco-Escuela, created in 1993 by Conservation International, a non-profit conservation organization. This immersion school offers Spanish training with an ecological twist, incorporating language exercises that educate students about the natural riches of the Petin.

For a town traditionally relying on environmentally destructive activities in the region's forests, San Andris is a true conservation success story. After 6 years in operation, the community-owned school now provides alternative incomes to more than 100 families.

As a student you receive a rare opportunity to live with a rural Guatemalan family, eating the traditional diet, participating in daily life and observing local customs first-hand. Three times a day you sit down to eat with your family. Nothing will give you more insight into the economic, social and environmental dynamics of a country than talking about them over a plate of warm tortillas, rice and beans...not to mention the priceless Spanish lessons you get from everyone under the age of twelve.

And then there are the surprises of every day life in San Andris. During my stay I celebrated the "Day of the Skulls," a religious ceremony held annually for more than seventy-five years.

Villagers parade in the streets for forty straight hours while the ancestral spirits of the town's guardian monks visit each home for old-fashioned recipes of chicken, corn and beans. Whether it is a demonstration by an expert chicle harvester, a lecture from a local conservationist, or simply a Spanish film projected on the wall of the schoolhouse, Eco-Escuela staff take great strides to provide you with a new and entertaining activity each day.

I found the best way of expressing my gratitude to my Guatemalan hosts was to participate in a school-sponsored volunteer opportunity. Current projects include maintaining a self-guided nature trail through the forest, planting indigenous trees in the reforestation project, identifying uses of plants in the traditional medicine garden, or painting the newly built children's interpretive library.

After all of your hard work, relax to a panoramic view of the tropical forest atop temple four of Tikal—the ancient Mayan city conveniently located forty-five minutes from the school. Your newfound knowledge and awareness of the area will make this excursion all the more gratifying.

Trip Details

Classes are purchased in weekly segments. You can study one-on-one with a certified teacher for four or six hours each day at the school.

Getting There
To get to Eco-Escuela, you fly to Guatemala City or Belize City and catch a connecting flight to the town of Flores. The school provides you with a no-hassle transportation service from the airport to San Andris by launcha, or small boat, across the calm waters of Lake Petin Itza. A five-minute walk up the hill brings you to the school.

Homestays are the only accommodations for students and are all within walking distance of the school. Students have their own bedroom, and share a bathroom with the family. Accommodations are modest, but comfortable. Three meals a day are provided by the host family. Laundry services require extra payment.

Expenses in San Andris are minimal since your host family provides lodging and food. However, you may want money for excursions, restaurants, gifts and refreshments at the local cantina. For two weeks, US $150 should be sufficient. Extended stays might require more.

Getting Around
Transportation is established. In San Andris, everything is within walking distance. Launchas can take you across the lake to Flores where there are restaurants, pharmacies, and shops. A taxi can take you into Santa Elena where many tour operators, banks, and the airport are located.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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